Wednesday, June 15, 2016

# 10 The Grapes of Wrath – John Steinbeck

“Certain events such as love, or a national calamity, or May, bring pressure to bear on the individual, and if the pressure is strong enough, something in the form of verse is bound to be squeezed out,” said the author John Steinbeck via The Paris Review.

A personal calamity brought pressure on a woman and evoked not verse, but a poetic, transcendent message. The Stanford rape victim released her court statement to the general media and it continues to impact women and men everywhere through its extraordinary content and courageous tone. The statement concludes as follows: 
“And finally, to girls everywhere, I am with you. On nights when you feel alone, I am with you. When people doubt you or dismiss you, I am with you. I fought every day for you. So never stop fighting, I believe you… To girls everywhere, I am with you.”
As her refrain, “I am with you,” resonates, we hear echoes of the signature “I’ll be there” passage of Steinbeck’s 1939 novel, The Grapes of Wrath, when Tom Joad tells his mother: 
"Whenever they's a fight so hungry people can eat, I'll be there. Whenever they's a cop beatin' up a guy, I'll be there... I'll be in the way guys yell when they're mad an'-I'll be in the way kids laugh when they're hungry an' they know supper's ready. An' when our folks eat the stuff they raise an' live in the houses they build-why, I'll be there."
Who can forget Henry Fonda’s performance of this passage in John Ford’s 1940 adaptation of the novel? Steinbeck himself was so struck he said that Fonda “…made me believe my own words,” according to The Telegraph.

The scene became “…one of the most famous speeches in film history,” according to Scott Simon of NPR in an interview of film critic Shawn Levy. Levy amplified that appraisal of the scene: “…the way [Fonda] delivers the line--the kind of breathy, halting quality and, of course, the timbre of his voice, you know, is so--there's really no other way to describe it--it's so American. There's, like, hickory and flint and molasses in it.”

One could say that the Stanford student’s statement is very American through its passionate, compassionate and careful consideration of the judicial process and the foundations of justice, and the individual’s inalienable rights of safety and dignity—the conviction that it doesn’t have to be this way, and we can change it. She has the fortitude and the vision to soar above pain, shame and anger, and her wings were the written word. As a result, hers is not just a Stanford story.

Susan Shillinglaw told Lynn Neary that for Steinbeck, who attended Stanford on and off between 1919 and 1925, universality was the aim: 
"He saw dispossession as a theme and as a story much larger than, you know, the California story… So I think he always knew what he was about in terms of the sort of mythic parallels. Tom Joad's exit from the book, for example — you know, he exits saying, ‘I'll be there wherever people are hungry’— so he kind of says: Throughout time, there's going to be a need for me.”
The Swedish Academy in 1962 awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature to Steinbeck, calling out The Grapes of Wrath as “…the story of the emigration to California which was forced upon a group of people from Oklahoma through unemployment and abuse of power. This tragic episode in the social history of the United States inspired in Steinbeck a poignant description of the experiences of one particular farmer and his family during their endless, heartbreaking journey to a new home.” In this presentation speech, Anders Österling said, “Dear Mr. Steinbeck…you have become a teacher of good will and charity, a defender of human values…"

In accepting, Steinbeck said, “…the writer is delegated to declare and to celebrate man's proven capacity for greatness of heart and spirit - for gallantry in defeat - for courage, compassion and love. In the endless war against weakness and despair, these are the bright rally-flags of hope and of emulation."

The Stanford woman has triumphed by reeducating us about human values and the eternal challenge to defeat the abuse of power. She didn’t have to progress from Me to We for the trial, but she did. She wrote and distributed her statement rather than grant an interview or post a video, podcast or series of tweets. If she names herself, she will be honored; even if she chooses not to, her statement testifies to humanity. In evoking The Grapes of Wrath, she reminds us why, at least sometimes, we need and are moved by something like verse, something poetic.